Spring back into your outdoor runs injury-free

By Richard W. Kang, MD

It’s spring and it’s time to hit the trails, but runners need to be careful not to do too much, too fast – especially after a long, cold winter on the treadmill. You deserve to soak up the sun on the lakefront trail after surviving the Chicago winter, not stuck on the sidelines because of an early-season injury. Smart runners know to be cautious when easing into outdoor workouts, so their bodies have time to adjust.

Injuries can occur if you go straight to outdoor running – where you have to propel yourself along the ground – after a season of running on a moving surface. You can also become susceptible to injuries if you don’t gradually increase your mileage following a running break.

Some of the most common conditions are plantar fasciitis, runners’ knee, Achilles tendonitis, iliotibial band syndrome and shin splints. But you can avoid these injuries by taking into account the following tips:

If you hung up your running shoes for the winter, we don’t blame you. It was cold! Now that you are ready to hit the trails again, we urge you to start slow. Begin with just 10 to 20 minutes of easy jogging and see how you feel. If you don’t feel sore the next day, add about 5 to 10 minutes to your following run. Keep these gradual progressions going until you are back at your pre-hibernation level. By allowing your body to adapt slowly, you’re not just helping prevent injury: you are also more likely to develop of an efficient running stride.

If you have been diligently keeping up your running schedule on a treadmill all winter and are ready to shift to running outdoors, make the switch gradually. The treadmill affects your body differently than running outdoors. On a treadmill, the ground is being pulled underneath your feet. Outside you are propelling your body forward with every stride. To adjust, try replacing one of your indoor runs with an outdoor run once a week for the first couple of weeks. Then, replace two of your runs for the next two weeks and so on until you are running outdoors full time again.

Since it has been several months since you hit the open road, remember that you may be more sore than usual after your first run outside. That’s because the impact forces of the road are much less forgiving than those of the treadmill. Your pace might be slower outside too since you have to account for hills, wind temperature and constant adjustments to compensate for everything from pot holes to puddles.

Remember to listen to your body, adjust your pace and make the transition to outdoor running gradually and you will have a great, injury-free spring running season.

Richard W. Kang, MD, is an orthopaedic surgeon at the University of Chicago Medicine Orthopaedics Center.